Astrophotography Equipment: What do you need?

We present here our analysis of what equipment was used in the 250+ images shortlisted in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

This gives us a great understanding of what the most successful astrophotographers are using today to take the very best images.

See the findings below and also further on read our easy-to-understand overview of what astrophotography equipment you need to take stunning photos of starry skies, planets, and galaxies.

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RMG Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2020: Data Analysis

Royal Museums Greenwich’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest is one of the most prestigious astrophotography competitions in the world. It has been running annually since 2012.

Photographers from all around the world submit their images for consideration and the finalists and winners are announced once a year.

Since the question that we get asked the most is “what equipment do I need for astrophotography?”, we thought it would be interesting to pull out the information about the finalist photographs in the competition in order to get a picture of what cameras, telescopes, and mounts were used.

In September 2020, all the shortlisted photos were released along with helpful information about how the pictures were taken, including settings and equipment used.

We have trawled through the information provided on the 100+ images to pull out the relevant and interesting astrophotography equipment trends and presented these below.

This includes:

  1. What types of photos made the finalists of the competition
  2. What cameras were used
  3. What telescopes were used
  4. What mounts were used
  5. Highlights from two-year’s worth of data

What types of photos made the finalists of the competition?

Overall, there were 133 images shortlisted as finalists in 11 different categories: moon, sun, people & space, galaxies, skyscapes, image innovation, planets/comets/asteroids, stars & nebulae, newcomer and young photographer.

Because these categories can cross over with different kinds of astronomy images, we have broken these images down into the traditional three types of astrophotography – landscape, deep sky, and planetary:

  • Landscape astrophotography includes images of the Milky Way and star trails above the Earth – as long as part of the Earth’s landscape makes up part of the image.
  • Deep Sky photography images of galaxies and nebulae.
  • Planetary photography covers the major planets and objects in our solar system.

The results show that it’s a fairly even split, but that landscape astrophotography images are the most likely to make the shortlist of finalists:

astrophotography types

We can also break down the planetary category down further to pull out the sun (solar) and moon (luna) images:

types of astrophotography

As you can see, there were only six planetary images (4.5% of the total) made the final shortlist if you take out the sun and moon pictures.

This information might be interesting to you if you plan on entering the competition next year, but it’s also necessary as we break down the cameras and other pieces of equipment used below.


What cameras were used?

From the shortlisted images, 73 used DSLR or mirrorless cameras, and 53 used dedicated astronomy cameras like CCD and CMOS cameras.

This reflects the different types of images outlined above, as dedicated astronomy cameras can be used for deep-sky and planetary photography only, whereas DSLR and mirrorless cameras can be used for these as well as landscape astrophotography.

dlsr/mirrorless vs dedicated astro cameras

If you break this down further you can see that across all images DSLR cameras are the most likely to be used:

cameras

These findings are fairly close to the results last year, but there is an increase in the number of photographers using mirrorless cameras (it was 14 in 2019).

This likely reflects the general trend of mirrorless cameras growing in popularity in comparison to DSLRs and as more high-performing and affordable models become available, like the Sony Alpha, Nikon Z, and Canon EOS R ranges.

Four shortlisted images used smartphones or tablets. This was an increase from just one in 2019 and may be an indicator of the ever-improving performance of smartphone cameras.

The one other was a beer can pinhole camera with a three-month exposure 🙂

Most popular camera manufacturers

Nikon just edges out Canon as the most commonly used camera make:

camera manufacturers

This is actually a big turnaround from 2019 when Canon beat Nikon by some distance.

ZWO is by far the leading manufacturer of astronomy cameras.

Most popular camera models

In terms of camera models, the Canon EOS 6D reigns supreme for the successful astrophotographers in this competition (for the second year in a row):

most popular cameras

For anybody looking to get a new camera for astrophotography then these results are great news since it is not the most expensive or newest models only being used. In fact cameras like the Canon 6D and the Nikon D750 are relatively old models and can be bought for very reasonable prices (new or used).

For ease, we have also pulled out only the DLSR/mirrorless cameras into the below chart:

most popular dlsr and mirrorless cameras

Notably, no shortlisted photo used the Canon EOS Ra, which is the only pre-modified astrophotography DSLR/Mirrorless camera on the market in 2020.

The Nikon D810a is also a pre-modified astrophotography DSLR/Mirrorless camera but has been discontinued and is hard to find even second-hand these days.

These results are likely not anything against the Canon EOS Ra but rather just reflect that it’s very new on the market (it was released late-2019) and so fewer photographers have got their hands on one and also would have had very little time to make the deadline for submitting images to this competition. Look out for it in next year’s competition.

Landscape vs deep sky vs planetary cameras

As noted earlier, it’s worth breaking down the cameras used for astro image type out of landscape, deep sky or planetary images.

For landscape astrophotography, the Canon EOS 6D is the top dog. Followed by the Nikon D750 and Nikon D850.

The Sony A7III was the most popularly used mirrorless camera, followed by the Sony A7RIII, Canon EOS R, and the Nikon Z7.

most popular cameras for landscape astrophotography

For deep sky imaging, the most popular camera is the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro:

most popular cameras for deep sky astrophotography

For planetary imaging, it is split between four different ZWO models:

most popular cameras for planetary astrophotography

What telescopes were used

63 of the shortlisted images used telescopes.

The most popular telescope make is Celestron, followed by Takahashi, Sky-Watcher, PlaneWave and Meade Instruments:

most popular telescope manufacturers

The most commonly used single telescope model was the Takahashi FSQ-106ED. This is a quadruplet astrograph refractor for experienced astrophotographers.

More accessible for beginners (but not necessarily cheaper) would be the Celestron C11.

most popular telescope models

What mounts were used?

64 of the photographers named the tracking mounts used in their images.

The most popular mount is the Sky-Watcher EQ6 Pro:

most popular telescope mounts

The most popular mount manufacturer was also Sky-Watcher, followed by Astro-Physics:

most popular mount manufactuters

Highlights from two years’ worth of data

We did this analysis in 2019 also and when bringing the two years’ worth of results together then we get a bigger set of data from 252 pictures (133 in 2020 plus 119 in 2019).

Cameras

The Canon EOS 6D is by far the most commonly used camera in the past two years:

most popular cameras 2019 & 2020

Telescopes

The Takahashi FSQ-106ED has been the most successfully used telescope for astrophotography, followed closely by the Celestron 14-inch model:

most popular telescopes 2019 & 2020

Mounts

The Sky-Watcher EQ6 has been the most commonly used astrophotography mount by some distance:

most popular mounts 2019 & 2020

Methodology

We did this by manually analyzing the information provided on the 133 images on the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

It’s worth noting below where it may seem that there are minor anomalies in the results:

  • Some individual photographers have more than one photo shortlisted and so may use the same equipment more than once and will be counted more than once in the results.
  • Some may also use more than one camera or lens for a single photo, in these cases both pieces of equipment are counted in the results.
  • Some equipment details are not always clear, i.e. different names used for the same equipment or manufacturer not named, etc. In these cases, we’ve tried to find the correct make/model used in the US market. There are also anomalies such as the FLIR Grasshopper camera which combines CCD and CMOS sensor, so are counted towards both.
  • Sometimes equipment information is missing, for example, no star tracker or tracking mount mentioned even though the length of the exposure would have required it.
  • Some cameras may have been astro modified and some images used filters.
  • The image innovation category is for images that have been processed from publically available data provided by space telescopes like Hubble. These haven’t been included in the equipment analysis as it wouldn’t make a useful comparison.
  • Some photographers used homemade mounts or telescopes and these have been left out of the results.

Any questions?

We hope that is useful for you, whether you are researching equipment, entering competitions or just following astrophotography trends.

This is obviously not a scientific study as it’s a relatively small amount of data to work with and we can only see the images that made the final shortlist.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please use the comment box at the bottom.

Now we’ll dig into an overview of astrophotography equipment for beginners.


What equipment do I need for astrophotography?

The answer to this question is that it depends on what you are shooting.

There are broadly three types of astrophotography:

  1. Landscape – taking pictures of the stars and Milky Way over features on the Earth
  2. Planetary – taking pictures of the planets in our Solar System, as well as the Sun and Moon
  3. Deep sky – taking pictures of far off objects like galaxies and nebulae

This infographic gives you a good overview:

ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT

To draw this out a little more:

For landscape astrophotography you will need:

  1. Regular DSLR or mirrorless camera
  2. Wide-angle lens (35mm for a full-frame camera, 24mm or below for an APS-C sensor camera)
  3. Tripod

A star tracker is also a great piece of gear that will enable you to take longer exposures and better pictures but you can take great landscape astronomy images without one.

For planetary astrophotography you will need:

  1. Regular DSLR / mirrorless camera or a specialist CCD or CMOS astro camera
  2. Telephoto lens (85mm to 300mm) or telescope
  3. Tripod

Again, a star tracker or mount will improve your images, but you can get started without them.

For deep sky astrophotography you will need:

  1. Specialist astrophotography camera (eg, CCD or CMOS camera) or adapted DSLR camera with IR filter (like the Canon EOS Ra)
  2. Telescope – with the camera attached this works in place of a camera lens
  3. Mount (with tripod)

This is not exclusive and there are many different ways of combining different equipment to shoot what you want for your astro imaging. For example, deep sky photography can be done with a DSLR, telephoto lens, and star tracker but, for the most part, having the right gear will make it easier and give yourself the best chance of capturing great images.

Below we go into more detail on each item of equipment.


Cameras

DSLR & mirrorless cameras

Pentax K-70 Weather-Sealed DSLR Camera, Body Only (Black)

The easiest way to get going in astrophotography is to use a good, regular camera.

By “regular” we mean that it could be used for any other type of photography, and by “good” we mean that it has to be capable of having the camera settings changed manually. Most commonly, this will mean using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

It doesn’t have to be the best camera on the market, especially when you are first starting out. We recommend any beginner to first get an entry-level DLSR or similar and learn to push it to its limits. If you already have a camera like this but are unsure if it is good enough for astrophotography, give it a try first. You’ll learn the limits of your camera and be better able to take advantage of any improvements when you upgrade in the future.

The key things for the camera you need for astrophotography are:

  1. it can have different lenses attached, and
  2. that you can have full control over key settings like shutter speed, aperture, focus and ISO.

For more detail on what camera you need and some recommended models, see our article on the best cameras for astrophotography.

CCD/CMOS cameras

Orion Star Shoot G4 Color Deep Space Imaging Camera, Black (53088)

CCD stands for Charge-Coupled Device, and CMOS is Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor. These are dedicated astrophotography cameras.

If you’ve never seen one before you’ll notice that there are no buttons or controls of any kind, no screen or viewfinder. They are merely small metal boxes that can be a little hard to get your head around.

A CCD camera cannot be autonomously controlled like a regular camera but has to be connected to a computer and operated via software, like a webcam for example.

CCD cameras can capture exposures that can last from minutes to hours and because of this they are well suited for deep sky astrophotography – where you need to gather a lot of light to get an image of an extremely far-off object. Once the exposure has finished, the data is sent to the computer for digitization and post-production.

For case studies of CCD astrophotography see Leonardo Orazi and Ken Crawford describe in step-by-step detail what equipment they use and how they capture images.

CMOS cameras have traditionally been cheaper and less powerful alternatives to CCDs. In recent years though, the performance of CMOS cameras has caught up so are likely to become more common in the future.

See our article on the best cameras for astrophotography.


Lenses

Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8 Lens for Canon Mount

The next most important piece of astrophotography equipment is the lens that you attach to the camera.

Lenses that are a fixed focal length (for example, 24mm) are known as prime lenses. Lenses that are a variable focal length (for example, 18-55mm) are known as zoom lenses.

In general, prime lenses are better quality than zoom lenses of similar cost but lack the flexibility of being able to shoot at different focal lengths.

Most entry-level DSLR cameras come with a standard lens. This is referred to as a “kit lens” and is usually a zoom lens of 18-55mm.

Whilst you can certainly use this lens for astrophotography (and it is definitely worth trying before you buy anything else), it is not perfect for our purposes of shooting amazing pictures of the stars and planets.

Depending on what you want to shoot, you will either need:

  1. a wide-angle lens, for shooting landscape astrophotography, or
  2. a telephoto lens, for lunar and planetary photography

See here for recommendations on the best astrophotography lenses.

Tripods

Vanguard VEO 2 235CB Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod with VEO 2 BH-50 Ball Head for Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm Mirrorless, Compact System Camera (CSC), DSLR

Having a good, sturdy tripod is vitally important for astrophotography.

When taking astronomy images you will be taking long exposures which means that your camera will need to stay perfectly still or the image will suffer from distortion. Even the tiniest camera shake can ruin your images.

Carbon fiber tripods are widely considered the best as they are lighter to carry than aluminum alternatives but don’t lose any sturdiness. They do tend to be a little more expensive though.

See here for our recommendations on the best tripods for astrophotography.


Star trackers

iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount with Polar Scope, Mount Only - Bundle with Camera Tripod

When you photograph an astronomy object you are (obviously) pointing your camera at it from your position on Earth and shooting.

Because you are aiming into a dark sky, what you are doing is trying to gather as much light as possible in order to get the best image. Therefore, the longer the exposure, the better the resulting picture because more light has been gathered.

However, because the Earth is constantly rotating it means that what you are photographing is effectively moving while you shoot it (in fact, both you and the object are moving).

This means that if your exposure time is too long you will get distortion on the image. This could be a blurring on a planetary image or trails when photographing stars.

We’ll cover settings and how to best take astronomy images below, but there are ways to work out exactly how long you can have your exposure time based on the camera and lens that you are using. It can range from 5 seconds up to a minute.

Tracking mounts provide a solution to this. They fit between your camera and your tripod and slowly adjust where your camera is pointing according to the rotation of the Earth.

This allows you to stay focused on the object you are photographing longer, and therefore produce better, sharper images.

When combined with a tracking mount, deep sky astrophotography is also possible with a telephoto lens.

An example of a popular astrophotography tracking mount is the iOptron SkyGuider Pro. (See some case studies of it used by expert astrophotographers here and here).

See our overview here of the best star trackers.


Intervalometer

Neewer Timer Remote for Canon 50D, 40D, 30D, 20D, 10D, 5D,1Ds Mark III, 1D Mark III, 1D Mark II N, 1Ds Mark II,1D, 1V, EOS 3, D2000

An intervalometer is a programmable remote shutter that you can use to set exposure time, the interval between photos, the total number of photos to be taken, and the time delay of the first picture.

This extra functionality can be priceless as you may want to take multiple pictures of the same object in succession. The purpose of this is to then “stack” the images in post-production after (more on this later).

This is a good practice that can bypass the need for a star tracker, although both methods have their merits.

See here the Best Intervalometers for different cameras.


Telescopes

Celestron NexStar Evolution Telescope

To attach a  camera to a telescope for astrophotography you need a couple of things called a T-ring and a T-adapter. This is called the T-mount system (the “T” stands for equipment manufacturer Tamron that devised the system in the 1950s):

  • The T-Ring is the object which fits into your camera where the lens would normally go.
  • The T-Adapter is the object that will connect your telescope or lens to your camera.

These pieces of equipment will be different depending on your camera and telescope types so be sure to get the right ones for you.

See our article on the best telescopes for astrophotography.


Mount

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R GoTo SyncScan Equatorial Mount

A mount is an instrument that fits between your tripod and telescope and very slowly moves where your telescope (or camera) is pointing to compensate for the Earth’s rotation, just like the tracking mount for a camera covered above.

As touched on before, our planet is constantly moving and rotating and to take photos of astronomy objects in the sky you need to focus on them for extended periods of time. This can be anything from a few seconds to minutes or even weeks and months for more advanced deep-sky photography.

A mount allows you to focus on an object and then track it to allow you to focus on it and photograph for a longer period.

This is why it is one of the most important pieces of equipment. See the quote below from an advanced astrophotographer:

“The most important piece of equipment in astrophotography is the mount. We recommend buying the best mount you can afford. You can take a nice image with a great mount and a decent lens but if you had a crappy mount and bad tracking, even the best lens is not going to take a decent image.” – Tolga

See the best astrophotography mounts here.


Other equipment

Headlamps

Ultra Bright CREE LED Headlamp - 160 Lumens, 5 Lighting Modes, White & Red LEDs, Adjustable Strap, IPX6 Water Resistant. Great For Running, Camping, Hiking & More. Batteries Included

A useful bit of kit for when you are out photographing the sky at night time is a headlamp.

Using one of these enables you to have your hands free to operate your camera and set up your equipment in the dark. Nothing fancy is needed and they can be picked up for relatively cheap.

The only feature you will want will be for it to be able to shine red light. This is because under the night sky your eyes adjust to the dark but normal light from a headlamp, torch or phone will ruin your night vision. Red light does not do this.

Clothing

Seibertron S.O.L.A.G 1/2 Finger/Fingerless/Half Finger Multi-Function Sports Gloves Black L

Depending on your location and time of year, you will need to wrap up warm for extended sessions outside.

Fingerless gloves are recommended so you can still press the buttons on your camera. Just use your common sense and dress appropriately.

Weatherproof bags

AmazonBasics SLR Camera Sling Backpack Bag - 8 x 6 x 16.5 Inches, Black

To store and carry all your equipment and protect it if you are caught in the rain or other adverse conditions.

Battery backups and safety equipment

Portable Charger RAVPower 26800 Power Bank 26800mAh Battery Pack Total 5.5A Output External Battery 3 Ports Portable Phone Charger Compatible with iPhone 11 Pro SE iPad Samsung Galaxy S10 Note10 Pixel

This will depend on your circumstances, but, for instance, if you are driving off on your own in the middle of the night to a dark sky site you will want to make sure you are well prepared to get back and stay warm.

You should consider what you would do if your phone battery dies, or there is no cell reception, etc.

What if your car won’t start when you want to head home? Do you have enough water and blankets to keep you warm if you have to hunker down in your car until it’s light? etc etc.

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